In conversation: Saud Alsanousi talks about The Bamboo Stalk
London - The relationships, sometimes intimate, between Gulf Arabs and the many thousands of foreign migrants in their midst is the central concern of the newly translated prize-winning novel, The Bamboo Stalk, by Saud Alsanousi, the Kuwaiti winner of the 2013 International Prize for Arabic Fiction.
The frequent humiliation migrant workers face working in Gulf countries is seen through the eyes of his protagonist, José.
José’s mother Josephine arrives in Kuwait from the Philippines to work as a servant. In the house where she works, she meets Rashid, the only son. After a short love affair, he decides to marry Josephine in secret.
But Josephine becomes pregnant with José and Rashid, under pressure from his family, sends his son to the Philippines. José grows up in poverty and hopes to return to Kuwait when he is 18.
Asked why he chose to portray José from birth until the age of 18, Alsanousi told an audience in London he wanted his character to have no experience of struggle or rebellion, a character who is innocent and untarnished in order to gently shock his readers. Through José’s eyes, Alsanousi criticises his own society to engage the reader. Everyone is judged, Alsanousi said, by appearance and everyone is labelled.
Alsanousi said he wanted to also take an innocent look at religion, a theme which runs through the novel. José has one ear listening to the Adhan, the Islamic call to prayer, another listening to church bells and at the same time feeling the essence of Buddhism. José realises God is from the heart.
The Kuwait author first thought he could write about migrant workers in Kuwait by reading about them, but he said he felt like he was writing a report or an essay so decided to travel to the Philippines to get a first-hand experience of the culture; to live and eat like José.
When he returned to his homeland, he saw what it was like to be a Filipino visiting Kuwait and it opened his eyes to daily mistakes Kuwaitis make.
This is when he started to add chapters to his novel. His stay in the Philippines opened the door to their views and their diverse, rich culture. He came away realising that Filipino culture is of no less value than Arab culture, just different, and in some ways better.
Alsanousi said that after his stay abroad, he experienced an identity crisis. Like José, he was confronted with issues of double identity, but was able to understand other cultures and religions. It took him a while to go back to being Alsanousi.
Translator Jonathan Wright said he read the novel before translating it as he had to imagine José as the book focuses on the voice of the narrator.
The novel’s clear text made it easy to translate as it used simple words. He says he had ten pages of questions for Alsanousi, which was not many compared to his work with other authors. Through José, the novel dives deep into Kuwait through emotions more than description.
The novel is aimed at all ages and nationalities as it is the humanitarian/religious global issues which matter, such as the Sunni/Shia, Christian/Muslim struggle.
Even so, Alsanousi admitted the younger generation had been more receptive to the ideas in the book, while the older generation was more wedded to its traditional views.
Organised by Banipal magazine, In conversation: Saud Alsanousi took place April 29th at Waterstone’s Piccadilly in London.